Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Think it through, fool!

Prime Minister Gillard's male defacto Tim Mathieson has been in the news a lot lately, and among the many images I've recently seen was one of Julia Gillard making an address in front of a banner for Menslink, a free counselling and mentoring the service for young men and their families in Canberra. She would have been doing this in partnership with her partner (I hate that overly-vague word) who is a supporter of that single-sex charity. Mathieson appears to have a particular commitment to male-only charities, with his high-profile support of men's sheds, another male-only charity. Perhaps he is doing this to get away from the traditionally feminine gender-stereotyping associated with his role in politics, as the partner of the leader. Unfortunately, in embracing everything manly in image, he has reinforced gender stereotypes rather than challenged them, and it is a mystery to me why so many political commentators seem to think Mathieson is in any way revolutionary in his role. Mathieson didn't explicitly embrace the supportive role that has previously been associated with women. He didn't dare to do this and then face up to and criticize the sexist jibes that would have followed. Instead he chose to wander into the shed that is only for men, with the other "blokes", thus walking backwards in time five decades to a nineteen-fifties mentality, which many of the retired men who are members of the men's shed movement can probably remember first-hand. 

You might think I'm being harsh about a person who has been thrown into the political spotlight without even being a politician himself. I understand that Mathieson's role would be a difficult one, but nevertheless I wish he had paid more heed to the damage that the ideas about gender that he supports can and does do in Australian society. The CEO of Menslink Martin Fisk recently addressed a reception at the Lodge hosted by Prime Minister Gillard and Tim Mathieson. A post including a transcript of Mr Fisk's speech was posted at the Menslink website a couple of days ago: http://menslink.org.au/menslink-ceo-addresses-pms-xi-pre-match-reception-at-the-lodge/

Setting aside my concerns about the manipulative use of statistics in claims about mental health issues in this speech (a trick that the Australian public has been duped with many times by Australian celebrity psychiatrists), I wish to take issue with the gender-related assumptions that this speech appears to be based upon. The idea that the genders have important psychological differences has internationally grown in popularity to a striking degree in recent decades, an idea that has been supported by and publicly promoted by some psychology researchers and criticised by others. A prominent supporter of these ideas is the autism researcher Prof Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge. I have written many posts in which I have raised questions about Baron-Cohen's research and popular books. The now-popular idea that there are profound psychological differences between the human genders is an element supporting the popular belief that children need parental role models of both genders (or a good non-parental substitute), especially a parental role model of their own gender. It is very clear that this belief is an underlying assumption of the speech recently given by the CEO of Menslink. This popular belief inevitably leads to beliefs that sole parent mothers are insufficient to parent sons and vice-versa, that single parents are insufficient as parents, that same-sex parents are jointly insufficient as parents, and that children from such families are in some way psychologically undeveloped or damaged, especially ones who were raised without a parent of their own gender. A great many individuals and families are condemned by this inter-connected set of beliefs about psychology and gender, which are to my knowledge not supported by scientific evidence. There is rarely any acknowledgement that single-parent families are often living in poverty, and this stressful economic situation is rarely cited as a possible cause of social problems that are thought to be common to this type of family. This is all stupidity of the most insidious kind, with the potential to do much harm in Australian society, and to distract the public and decision-makers from the major social issues in Australian society, such as economic inequality, racism, unemployment, sexism and a large and growing the gender pay gap. Has Mr Mathieson spared a moment's thought about these issues? 

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